The Creativity Cure

A do-it-yourself prescription for happiness

"I Am Going to Stop Buying Stuff For a Year"

Holding back to enhance mood.

When you are discontent, you always want more, more, more. Your desire can never be satisfied. But when you practice contentment, you can say to yourself, 'Oh yes - I already have everything that I really need.  -Dalai Lama

My client Beth said she just can't stand it anymore. She feels suffocated by stuff; from sales, relatives, past phases and random sources. Instead of putting energy towards searching for the ever better whatever, she is going to not buy for a year and turn it into a creative, fun project. Rather than purchasing on impulse, racing to sales or grabbing something just because it is a good deal, cute or super cheap, she is going to resist. And see what happens. Something about the buying habit has been undermining for her. It is both a material and psychological matter.

Beth wants to see if her mood improves with this self-imposed restriction. Her sense is that she deals with doldrums via purchases. She wonders if it is less about wanting and having and more about the momentary thrill or trying to solve some inner discomfort. What will happen inside if malaise is allowed to linger?

It is ok to have some dysphoria, as it is part of the human condition. The capacity to be at peace with melancholic moments might be strengthening. When you know you can tolerate discomfort, you are empowered.

“A friend said that the Dalai Lama says just to sit a while with your unhappiness. Feel your feelings instead of running away because they might transform somehow. It takes energy to fight them.”

Though Beth is able to pay the bills, she does not have enough to save, lives hand to mouth and wonders if she wastes in a way she will later regret. Buying a great shirt on sale feels like freedom initially but accumulations become burdensome and her tiny bank balance makes her anxious. Occasionally, she purchases a full price item, which makes her feel peaked and worried at the same time. She knows that the label or even the beauty of it should not define her but she cannot resist.

During college, Beth lived with her sister and they saved small change in a nylon bag. At the end of each month they used the coins to buy something special.

“We looked forward to it. Being frugal is uplifting in a weird way. It makes you feel you are not being duped, buying things you do not actually want just because they are a good price. It’s amazing what you don’t need or want that you think you need or want. Or even like. So many times I say, what was I thinking? I end up wearing the same few things. What’s the point?”

made by Chloe's hand

Impulse mastery jolts contentment, psychologically speaking. Having agency (instead of feeling controlled by inner forces) decreases anxiety. This is not to say that spontaneous action, indulgence and letting go are not important for mental health. They are. A balance between the "pleasure principle" and the" reality principle" serves the psyche. It’s all about timing, circumstance and the hope/belief that “things will improve if I just hold on.  Those who can delay gratification do better in life.

Consider the Stanford Marshmallow Study, which showed that children who were able to resist eating a marshmallow after being told they would get two later if they did so, were more successful in life.

You just have to know if something is doing you in even if you try to tell yourself it isn’t. And trust that delaying gratification produces positive outcomes in both psychological and practical ways.

Carrie Barron, M.D., is a psychiatrist and co-author of The Creativity Cure: A Do-It Yourself Prescription for Happiness, which she wrote with her husband, Alton Barron.

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